French Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the French language. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I was wondering if there is an object personal pronoun in French to be used when you don't want to reveal or are not sure of the gender of the person or the person concerned can be either male or female.

In English in such cases there is a tendency to use third person plural, “them”. What would be the equivalent of this in French? I think “L'on” works as a subject. Is it possible to use it as an object also?

How can I translate “Whenever I meet someone I say ‘hi’ to them.” ?

Quand je recontre quelqu'un je leur dis « hi ».


Quand je recontre quelqu'un je on dis « hi ».

Can I use cela, ceci etc here, as I think “ça” can often be used to talk about people in sentences of the type: “c'est + noun”?

Edit: Thank you for the answers. I guess the example I gave inadvertently does not demonstrate the confusion since both to him and to her are “lui”. What about another verb such as regarder? “Je le regarde” or “je la regarde”? I specifically want to be gender-equivocal. I don't want the reader to go away thinking I meant him/her. As in English, when we say “I thank them”, when the object is actually singular, I am being ambiguous about the gender of the person.

share|improve this question
I’m not sure I understand what you want to know about “ceci” and “cela”. – Édouard Jan 3 '14 at 15:17
I mean to ask can I use them to talk about people. Can I say :'Quand je rencontre quelqu'un je dis ceci hi" – Arun Jan 3 '14 at 15:32
With your edit and comment, this question is getting a bit confused. I would suggest asking a new question for the use of “ceci”/“cela” (which is not used for people) and a new question about le regarder/la regarder. – Édouard Jan 3 '14 at 22:02
up vote 4 down vote accepted

There is no gender-agnostic third person pronoun, you have to commit.

Sometimes you can avoid implying a biological gender by using a noun and its grammatical gender.

Je vois une personne au loin. Je la regarde approcher.

Sometimes you can use “il ou elle”, but it quickly becomes unwieldy. It only works with the subject pronoun, not with the direct object pronoun. If there is a participle or an adjective that requires gender agreement, it is in the masculine form.

Quelqu'un m'a tapé dans le dos. Il ou elle est parti sans rien dire.

There is no equivalent of the singular use of them in French, and ils/elles takes a gender mark anyway. On is only a subject pronoun, and only means an indeterminate person, not a specific person of unknown gender. Neutral pronouns such as ceci only apply to things; if you refer to a person as ceci, it will be perceived either as a grammatical mistake if you sound foreign, or as offensive otherwise.

By default, to be gender-agnostic, use il/le/lui.

share|improve this answer
As quelqu'un is a masculine pronoun, the use of il ou elle after sound stranger to me than it is in the very similar "On m'a tapé dans le dos. Il ou elle est parti sans rien dire". – Un francophone Jan 3 '14 at 21:22
Better to avoid the pronoun and write "Quelqu'un m'a tapé dans le dos puis est parti sans rien dire." – jlliagre Jan 3 '14 at 22:34

What you should say

The correct form is “Quand je rencontre quelqu’un, je lui dis « Hi! »”. As, in this context, “lui” can mean both “à lui” and “à elle”, gender is not an issue in this sentence.

Why are your sentences not French

“On” always is a subject, never an object! Therefore, *“Quand je recontre quelqu'un je on dis 'hi'.” is not correct.

“L’on” is just a fancy “on” which is used to ease prononciation. I don’t think there is a situation in which you can use “l’on” but not ”on”. In any case, “l’on” still always is a subject.

In *“Quand je rencontre quelqu'un je leur dis 'hi'” is also incorrect, because “quelqu’un” is singular and thus can’t be referred to by the plural pronoun “leur” (which is the plural form of the “lui” in the correct version).

share|improve this answer

I'd say:

Quand je rencontre quelqu'un je lui dis 'hi'.

share|improve this answer

I was wondering if there is an object personal pronoun in French to be used when you don't want to reveal or are not sure of the gender of the person or the person concerned can be either male or female.

A pronoun has to agree with the gender of the noun to which it refers (which may or may not be related to the sex/gender of the person, personne is feminine for instance and while having a match is far more common it is an interesting style exercise to write a whole story in French where all feminine nouns and pronouns refer to males and all masculine one refer to females; if you want to be gender-equivocal you may try it -- depending on the point you want to make, it could be better made by having the sex of characters obvious and not matching the gender of the words used).

When there is no noun, the classical rule is to use the masculine but there is a very strong tendency to use the sex of the person if it is known (that tendency exist as well when the sex doesn't match the gender of the word and then it is stronger as the distance increase).

Quelqu'un is a masculine pronoun, so I'd not hesitate to use the masculine for pronoun referring to the same person.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.